The Chicago Blackhawks should have no shortage of enthusiasm later this week for one of the league’s premier games.
They’ll have a chance to get properly revved up for the Winter Classic on Monday night when they try to maintain sole possession of the Central Division lead after their final matchup with the Nashville Predators this season.
The Blackhawks (24-10-2) are set to make their second appearance in the Classic and play their third outdoor game in franchise history on New Year’s Day against the Washington Capitals. They appeared in the 2009 Classic at Wrigley Field and will play in another baseball stadium, Nationals Park, on Thursday.
Chicago topped Pittsburgh 5-1 at Soldier Field on March 1 and is chasing its 16th win in 20 games. The Blackhawks only have a two-point advantage over Nashville (23-9-2) in the Central because the Predators have largely kept pace by winning 11 of 15.
“This is a huge game for us,” Nashville forward Eric Nystrom said. “(Chicago) has been playing really well, we’ve been playing well all season long, and we’ve had some good matchups so far this year.”
Nashville has generated 18 goals in its last four games and bounced back from Tuesday’s 5-3 loss in Boston with a 4-1 win over Philadelphia on Saturday. Colin Wilson scored a pair of goals, giving him four in three contests, and Filip Forsberg added to his sterling rookie campaign with a goal and an assist.
The Predators also scored three times on the power play after going 3 for 49 in their previous 14 games.
Nashville will next face one of the league’s best penalty kill units in Chicago, which has yielded nine goals in 100 power plays. Chicago has killed off 39 of its last 42, including all three in a 5-2 win at Colorado on Saturday.
After having an eight-game home win streak end with Tuesday’s 5-1 drubbing by Winnipeg, the Blackhawks got back to showcasing the league’s stingiest defenses (2.03 goals allowed per game) and two players continued their hot streaks at the other end of the ice.
Patrick Kane had two goals and an assist, giving him 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in his last eight games. Defenseman Brent Seabrook’s go-ahead goal in the second period gave him two goals and four assists in his last five contests.
“I think (Seabrook) has gotten better every game, defensively and offensively,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think the offense is coming because he’s been defending so well.”
The Blackhawks also boast one of the league’s best scoring attacks (3.0 goals per game) and have scored 17 times in their last five contests, but have totaled seven goals in their three games against Nashville.
The Predators, who are second in the league with 2.06 goals allowed per contest, have been stymied offensively by the Blackhawks, scoring just five times while going 1-1-1.
Minor league call-up Scott Darling started a 3-1 win in Nashville on Dec. 6 with Corey Crawford out because of an injured left leg. Crawford was pulled from his second game back Tuesday after giving up three goals on 13 shots, then made 23 saves Saturday.
Crawford stopped 19 shots in his only start against the Predators this season, a 2-1 overtime victory Oct. 18 at the United Center. Nashville regrouped at home five days later, riding a hat trick by James Neal against Antti Raanta to a 3-2 win.
Neal has nine goals and four assists in his last 12 games against Chicago. Kane has none in his last four versus Nashville.